Lopsided India

Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos
Tourists in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu

In his much-admired biography of V.S. Naipaul, Patrick French has an excellent half-dozen pages describing the disciplined, relentless way his subject set about gathering material for his last full-length examination of India, then widely seen to be incapable of reforming its roughhouse communal politics or quickening its development. When, twenty years ago, India: A Million Mutinies Now finally appeared, it was judged to be surprisingly sympathetic and hopeful, considering India’s actual circumstances and the tone of high dudgeon, sometimes mockery, that many Indians had found in Naipaul’s prior treatments of their land.

At the time it wasn’t clear what or who had changed more, India or the ex-Trinidadian sojourner. Now it can be said that Naipaul was prescient. Traveling and writing several years before economic reforms upended a planning bureaucracy that had smothered India’s entrepreneurial zeal and aptitude, which have since flourished, he sensed an irrepressible cultural change. The “mutinies” he celebrated as a burst of “self-awareness” were, he concluded, “part of the beginning of a new way for many millions.”

It’s tempting to approach Patrick French’s survey of today’s energetic, surprising, still lopsided India as an implicit sequel to Naipaul’s last venture along those lines. He opens with a brief account of a visit to remote Ladakh, a high-altitude outpost of Tibetan culture in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, just up the road from the point at which Naipaul ended his travels a generation ago. But there’s no hint of an homage here; in fact, the name of his last subject never appears in these pages (only a coy reference to “a biography,” subject anonymous, that delayed the writing of this book). He’s in Ladakh, about as far north as he can get in India, merely to make the inarguable point that it’s very different from Tamil Nadu far to the south; and thus to make vivid the oldest idea in the long literature of Indian travelogues: that the country’s cultural tapestry is about as variegated as it can conceivably be. And so we are transported in reverse gear into another discussion of the nation-building challenges that faced India’s leaders after the Raj shut down in 1947.

Missing here is the rapacious curiosity with which Naipaul drilled down through the testimonies he assembled in search of the theme he would extract from such scattered findings, his conclusion about tectonic shifts in the Indian situation, that “new way for many millions.” French starts off in a similar vein, saying that there has been “some sort of unleashing.” Later he speaks of “a transformative revolution,” adding incontrovertibly that “it is not always a pretty sight.” What Naipaul claimed to have discovered, he takes as a given. Less an explorer than a tour guide, this Englishman has a collection of notebooks, anecdotes, insights, and clippings that he has gathered in the twenty-five…

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